School for Environment and Sustainability: In the face of dire reports about our changing climate, you call for “global optimism.” Why do you consider optimism to be so vital to successful climate action?
Figueres: Optimism is not the a posteriori celebration of a success, but rather the a priori positive attitudinal input to a challenge that lies ahead. It is the courage with which we face a daunting task, the conviction with which we apply our persistent efforts.
There is no victory without optimism. This is true of any endeavor including climate change. The only way to have any chance of addressing climate change in a timely fashion is to approach the monumental task with optimism.
SEAS: You are known to be the architect of the Paris Climate Accord signed in 2015. In the years leading up to the accord, were you always confident that your efforts would be successful?
Figueres: During the five years of development of the Paris Agreement I was not always clear about the next steps that had to be taken, nor was I always confident about exactly how we would succeed. But I knew we had to succeed in building a universally agreed global framework for addressing climate change, as a necessary though not sufficient structure for the transformation of the global economy.
We had to succeed because addressing climate change in a timely fashion is the only moral stance we can take in order to prevent the worst impacts on future generations. We have no other option.
SEAS: You’ve made the case for “radical collaboration” with businesses, NGOs, universities, governments and communities toward a carbon-neutral future. Can you give us an example of that kind of collaboration?
Figueres: Several years before the adoption of the Paris Agreement, corporations around the world were organized into four to five different groupings with slightly different priorities, positions and approaches to climate change. While there was strong attachment to the differences, it was evident that the impact of the corporate voice in the international organizations was weakened by the diversity.
Over two years these various groupings worked with intentionality to form a collaborative umbrella organization under which each could maintain some of its specificity while joining forces in the overall approach to the most important issues under negotiation.
Ultimately these efforts resulted in the new organization We Mean Business, which had a decidedly positive impact on the Paris Agreement.
SEAS: In response to the U.S. president’s promise to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord in 2020, the “We Are Still In” movement galvanized businesses, universities, and local and regional governments to declare their support for climate action. Will these efforts be enough to counterbalance U.S. federal policy?
Figueres: It is too early to know whether the emission-reduction actions of the members of “We Are Still In” movement will counterbalance the negative effects of U.S. federal policy. There are credible opinions on both sides of that argument, and we only have projections at this point.
However, we do know that if the states, cities and the private sector take the highest level of ambition, they could put the country in striking distance of meeting its Paris pledge despite backsliding by the U.S. federal government.
Beyond that, it is important to understand that actually decarbonization of the economy (in the U.S. as well as abroad) is occurring largely due to the forces of the market. Renewable energy is simply getting cheaper every day, and new renewables are already cheaper than installed coal in many jurisdictions. In the U.S. natural gas is certainly cheaper than coal, which is exiting the market at a fast pace due to its lack of competitiveness.
Decarbonization is being led by financial realities, not by ideology.
SEAS: In your view, what is the most significant role that a university can play in advancing climate action?
Figueres: Beyond ensuring that the latest climate change science, policy and finance is being taught to eager students, universities have other critical roles to play in advancing climate change.
First, all universities should role model low- or no-emission operations by reducing their own emissions to net zero as quickly as possible.
Secondly, if the university has a research capacity, it can contribute to developing cutting edge technologies for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Third, those universities that are fortunate enough to have a capital endowment, should ensure their capital is not invested in high-carbon assets. There has to be integrity to our stand on the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced.